My boys are now both over two years old, but they still like the occasional chew on their toys, which are mostly made of plastic. Rubber duckies, Lego men, Brio trains — it’s still a ton of fun to put in their mouths if it makes mommy and daddy really mad. I choose my battles with them, but I try to stop them partly because I’m worried about the chemicals in the plastic. Surely, microscopic parts of that plastic must be getting into their systems? One set of bath toys was very typical, made in China but exported to America, from a company vowing they are “safe and dependable”, with standards that “meet and exceed” US laws. What exactly does that mean? What are these laws? Should I be worried? And just how well can I or any parent protect our children from all environmental harms?
When I think about our modern world’s reliance on chemicals and plastics, I’m reminded of what Donald Rumsfeld called the “known unknowns” – we know that we understand almost nothing about the safety of the 80,000 consumer chemicals created since World War II, because they’ve never been required to be tested on humans. As the WHO states in their 2012 report State of The Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, “the vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all.”
The chief concern is that some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals whose molecular structure is similar to our natural hormones. With this mimicry, they can bind to the same receptors that our natural hormones do, thus altering our normal endocrine activities which control just about every aspect of our health. We are mostly worried about children because these endocrine disruptors could cause permanent damage during our most sensitive growth spurts: while still developing in the womb, and later during puberty. The most notorious example of an endocrine disruptor is diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen which was given to many pregnant women in the decades after World War II as a treatment to prevent birth complications. But slowly it became clear that many newborn girls of these mothers were getting a rare vaginal cancer, and DES was banned and declared a carcinogenic — but even right now many of these same “DES daughters” are continuing to have reproductive health problems both for themselves as well as in their own children, which means some endocrine disruptors can permanently alter our DNA, affecting generations.
The US Endocrine Society published an even more damning document, their 2015 Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, which concludes that
…there is strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption, namely: obesity and diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems.
The prestigious JAMA Pediatrics published their own review of endocrine disruptors in 2012, essentially agreeing with the WHO’s assessment that while hard data on humans isn’t very strong, there’s enough concerning data to conclude that “efforts to reduce EDC exposure as a precaution among pregnant women and children are warranted.” Chemicals such as BPA, PVC and phthalates are most often mentioned as causing harm in boys and girls, associated with infertility, obesity, cancers and neurodevelopmental problems such as behavioral issues and a lower IQ.
So what can we all do to protect ourselves? After all, everything we touch almost literally has plastic as part of it. I’ve found a few consumer groups and blogs that offer helpful advice for worried parents. My favorite is The Soft Landing blog, which has a very useful collection of safer product shopping guides. The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit also offers similar advice. Here’s a small summary of what most are advising:
- Try to buy products (especially for babies) that are free of BPA, phthalates and PVC (The Soft Landing website has great blog lists).
- Switch all your plastic food containers to glass.
- With the Plastic Coding System, avoid numbers 3, 6 and 7 and try to use numbers 1,2,4 or 5.
- Consider buying organic produce to reduce exposure to pesticides..
- If you must use plastic cling wrap, only use PE wrap; minimize contact of cling wrap plastic with the food; and try not to microwave with the plastic on it. Especially don’t let the plastic sit on top of liquids, whether cold or hot.
- Reduce indoor dust exposure by cleaning carpets and dusty surfaces regularly using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Always immediately transfer your restaurant leftovers into glass containers at home, and never reheat your leftovers or eat directly from takeaway plastic containers.
We’ve put most of these into practice in our home, so I feel a bit less stressed about this issue. And the boys’ bath toys? While The Soft Landing blog reassuringly listed them on their list of safer bath toys, their own company rep emailed me to confirm they are “BPA-free, phthalate-free, and non-phthalate PVC”. So I am letting them munch away — for now. Choose your battles…